Is Britain experiencing a golden age of engineering?

Olympic stadium

Evan Davis has been climbing bridges and tunnelling underground investigating Britain's creaking infrastructure and offers a personal view on why we may be about to embark on a new age of epic engineering projects.

We all have golden memories of the summer of 2012 - Jubilee street parties and triumphs for Team GB.

But my favourite memento is in front of me as I write: a ball of London clay. It is a reminder of one of my highlights - a morning on board Phyllis.

Phyllis is one of the tunnel boring machines for Crossrail and one of the most extraordinary characters I met visiting some of the most exciting infrastructure in Britain.

Crossrail is the new railway which will run from West to East right across London. It is the biggest engineering project in Europe - and Phyllis herself is not exactly dainty.

She is 150 metres long, and weighs 1,000 tonnes.

Find out more

Evan Davis
  • Watch the first part of Evan Davis' series Built in Britain on Sunday 7th October on BBC Two at 20:00 BST
  • Or catch up again on BBC iPlayer via the link (UK only)
  • Part two of Built in Britain will be broadcast on Sunday 14th October on BBC Two

When I joined her while filming a BBC documentary, she was burrowing under Paddington heading towards Farringdon, staffed by a team of around 20 tunnellers.

It is hot, hard and time-consuming work - the first trains are not due to run until 2018.

Crossrail is a prime example of infrastructure. It is a rather deadly word, but I think it is exciting stuff, the civil engineering which makes Britain tick - the bridges, tunnels, power and water networks, which bind us together.

And it does not have to be epic engineering - it is also the pipes under your road.

The mighty Phyllis is also a perfect example of why we need infrastructure. It is about providing space for us to grow in the long term.

"Crossrail is a good example of putting in 10% more transport infrastructure to give you that lift, to give you that extra horizon of capacity for the future," said Andrew Wolstenholme, Crossrail's Chief Executive.

And that's exactly what infrastructure is for - giving us capacity for the future.

Whether it is finding ways to funnel more water to the thirsty South East of England or developing better broadband delivery to cope with the ways we're increasingly working and playing online, we need engineering to adapt to the ways we are changing.

Crossrail construction site, January 2012 Crossrail will link Berkshire and Buckinghamshire via London with Essex and Kent

Think of it as future-proofing Britain. And that will not come cheap.

The Oxford economist Professor Dieter Helm told me it would cost around £500 billion of public and private money to pull off the work we're already committed to.

Knowing what to build and where is far from easy in a changing world - and we will undoubtedly make mistakes. That is in the very nature of infrastructure.

But Dieter Helm believes we shouldn't use that as an excuse for inaction.

"If we just stick our heads in the sand and do nothing then it isn't going to be a pretty sight going forward and the British economy is not going to be in a fit state to take on all those other countries, which are confronting these problems," Helm said.

Now undoubtedly, we face some very British challenges when it comes to infrastructure.

We rightly cherish our back yards and green spaces, and we'll defend them passionately when projects are announced. We live in a democracy, and we like to debate these things, often for many years.

Start Quote

It is a rather deadly word, but I think it is exciting stuff, the civil engineering which makes Britain tick - the bridges, tunnels, power and water networks, which bind us together.”

End Quote Evan Davis on infrastructure

And historically, the British have always been rather wary of grand engineering projects - perhaps understandably, given that many of them have been delivered late and over budget.

Yet there are grounds for optimism.

Before the Olympic Games began I explored a side of the Olympic Park you did not see this summer - the extraordinary network of tunnels 30 metres beneath it.

These tunnels allowed the removal of 52 huge pylons which previously crossed the Olympic site - and the electricity cables to be buried underground.

The tunnels are just one small but fascinating bit of the Olympic infrastructure that underpinned the success of the games, and it was proof that we can pull off those big projects when we put our mind to it.

Sir John Armitt, the Chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, explained why it worked so well.

"The thing about an Olympics is you have to finish it on time. There's a fixed end date. Second thing, you really want political consensus and we've had political consensus.

"Third thing, you can't be held up by planning. We were given planning powers. So that helped very considerably. You have to have a sensible budget, and we were given a sensible budget by Treasury," he said.

Evan Davis Evan visited the vast network of new National Grid power tunnels under London

Now those are conditions which others can only dream of - on other major projects deadlines often slip, politicians often can't achieve consensus, and the planning process takes years.

But the Olympics has crystallised a view that we're better placed than ever to pull off the kind of engineering we need.

In fact, we have been getting better at it for some time - many in the industry would see High Speed 1, the fast line from the Channel Tunnel to London's St Pancras station which was completed in 2007, as a key turning point.

Britain has a wonderful infrastructure heritage.

"We probably have the greatest heritage in the world, in terms of inspirational individuals," says architect Lord Foster.

"Look at Brunel, he created tunnels, bridges, ports, ships. I mean the breadth of that ambition, we should be creating in that spirit."

Our Victorian predecessors built the infrastructure we still rely on today like our train lines and our sewers and for years we've continued to export those skills.

But we have often been tentative about applying them at home.

But what I have seen has showed me that we are now bringing those skills home - on projects from the new £1.5bn Forth Bridge, to the National Grid's power tunnels under London.

The summer of 2012 taught us that we could afford to believe in ourselves a bit more, to be a bit more ambitious as a nation. It is a lesson we are learning in infrastructure, too.



This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Engineering could definitely benefit from a charming spokesperson, someone in the public eye (like Brian Cox and his physics) who, by dressing with the flamboyance of an art house pop star and by expressing his or her passion in an engaging way (to people who wouldn't normally be inclined to listen) could at least begin to turn the tide of public perception. Higher salaries to follow...

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    The wages of sin is death, the wages of engineers is worse!

    (Sorry for the plagiarism, but I don't know the source!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    I read an article about how we don't have enough engineers in this country and that there would be a massive short fall over the next ten years, that surely won't help the situation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    All these grand projects...isn't this the very sort of thing that has helped to leave countries like Spain, Greece and perhaps even China high and dry?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    12. Soapbox
    So why isn't the term 'engineer' a protected title?
    So correct not to mention photocopier engineers, and all service engineers infact almost evryone not employed in "admin" or "management".

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    #36. _Silent_Majority_

    "What a sad fact of life that taking a cut for moving intangible amounts of money around the world can earn 000's more than a person responsible for designing a nuclear reactor."

    Even more so when you realise that money itself is merely marks on bits of paper, bits in bytes of computer memory.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    I agree with many others. As a graduate engineer, I had had enough in 1963 of being mistaken for a TV repairman or a train driver, whenever I announced I was an engineer., so I emigrated to a country where 'ingénieur' was a respected, even coveted, title. I have not been back since.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    ..Maybe making Science and Engineering degrees cheaper could help solve the problem. !!

    yes, they're actually more expensive than other courses as they tend to have fuller timetables which means less opportunity to work at the same time which is a major factor these days. Also text books & equipment costs tend to be higher

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    There is a talking down of British manufacturing and engineering by those uninvolved.
    Not helped by the fiction that Thatcher destroyed British industry. She didn't. Hopelessly uncompetitive industries, sometimes poorly managed and ravaged by union suicide tactics went to the wall because they were past saving with our taxes. Think BL.
    We are still one of the majors internationally- be proud.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    We need to stop all Arts funding and pour the money into massive Engineering & Science projects inc infrastructure, affordable housing (prefabs?) hydo/wave energy supplies and so on. Government fund all Engineering/Science/medical degrees totally and let the massively overpaid Arts industry fund itself. After all it is purely a support act to make us feel a bit better, but at astronomical cost.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Where was "Phyllis" designed and the parts made?

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    In regards to engineers' pay, it's a bloody disgrace.

    What a sad fact of life that taking a cut for moving intangible amounts of money around the world can earn 000's more than a person responsible for designing a nuclear reactor.

    Just remember where your computers came from, and the internet you use to connect, and the office block you sit in whilst gambling other people's money...

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Engineering is an art, agree it should be looked retrospectively.A wonderful engineering art, a road roughly 300 miles from Peshawar North West Frontier, through Kohat, all the way through Parachinar and Kabul. It climbs up to 4000 plus feet and some wonderful bridges. This was designed by a British major and his wife 130 years ago. One can not help without praising such a wonderful couple. Bless

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I echo the view of other Engineers who feel undervalued. Some of my colleagues did ok moving abroad. Here in the 80's everyone became an Engineer. "waste disposal engineer" = binman. Other "professions" are better paid Bankers more than the lot put together ;-) We desperately need infrastructure investment. Thatcher used the green lobby etc. as an excuse not to spend public money & it gone on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    a book keeping course does not make you an Accountant and a first aid course does not make you a Doctor, but a car mechanic's course makes you an Engineer.

    car mechanics who can just about justify "auromotive engineer" are the least of the problem. Its very common for machine operators to put down engineer as their profession these days

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Articles this week about a golden age of engineering and a shortage of engineers; is this why my son lost his graduate engineer job after the last election following massive cut backs in capital projects. He ended up going abroad to work as a TEFL teacher because he could no longer face years of unemployment and low paid service industry work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    @ 26 Alan Marr

    Totally agree. In the public sector it's shameful. I think there must be some 'glamour' issue that needs addressing by institutions within the industry. Architects can demand huge fees for deciding what something looks like. The poor soul then given the task of making it stand up, whilst carrying the risk of it falling down, gets paid a pittance!

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    12. Soapbox
    So why isn't the term 'engineer' a protected title?
    Only last night I spotted a HE course advert in my local paper that used the word "Engineer". The course was actually for a car mechanic.

    That's the problem - a book keeping course does not make you an Accountant and a first aid course does not make you a Doctor, but a car mechanic's course makes you an Engineer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Its a non stop age of investment, in London. Elsewhere in the UK the infrastructure is not being rebuilt. The next big things are - a new UK hub airport (no question its in London with no travel connections to the rest of the UK) and a new High Speed line that will go all of what 100 miles from London.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Engineering in this country succeeds, despite the lack of funding and media coverage it receives compared to nearly everything else.

    We should be investing heavily in this area; it will create jobs, improve the infrastructure for everyone and put the UK ahead for the future.

    And maybe give some of these youths I see roaming around the streets something to live and be proud for.


Page 12 of 14


More Business stories



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.